Flu is a highly infectious and very common viral illness that is spread by coughs and sneezes.
It's not the same as the common cold. Flu is caused by a different group of viruses and symptoms tend to be more severe and last for longer.
You can catch flu – short for influenza – all year round, but it is especially common in winter, which is why it is also known as 'seasonal flu'.
Flu causes a sudden high temperature, headache and general aches and pains, tiredness and sore throat. You can also lose your appetite, feel nauseous and have a cough.
Flu symptoms can make you feel so exhausted and unwell that you have to stay in bed and rest until you feel better.
Read more about the symptoms of flu.
When to see a doctor
If you are otherwise fit and healthy, there is usually no need to see a doctor if you have flu-like symptoms.
The best remedy is to rest at home, keep warm and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
You can take paracetamol or ibuprofen, to lower a high temperature and relieve aches.
You should see a doctor if you have flu-like symptoms and you:
- are 65 or over
- are pregnant
- have a long-term medical condition such as diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, kidney or neurological disease
- have a weakened immune system
This is because flu can be more serious for you and your doctor may want to prescribe antiviral medication.
Antiviral medicine can lessen the symptoms of flu and shorten its duration, but treatment needs to start soon after flu symptoms have begun in order to be effective.
Antibiotics are of no use in the treatment of flu because it is caused by a virus and not by bacteria.
Read more about how to treat flu and who should see a doctor.
How long does flu last?
If you have flu, you generally start to feel ill within a few days of being infected.
Symptoms peak after two to three days and you should begin to feel much better after a week or so, although you may feel tired for much longer.
You are usually infectious – that is able to pass on flu to others – a day before your symptoms start, and for a further five or six days. Children and people with weaker immune systems, such as cancer patients, may remain infectious for longer.
Elderly people and anyone with certain long-term medical conditions are more likely to have a bad case of flu, and are also more likely to develop a serious complication such as a chest infection.
In the UK, about 600 people a year die from a complication of seasonal flu. This rises to around 13,000 during an epidemic.
Read more about the complications of flu.
Preventing the spread of flu
The flu virus is spread in the small droplets of fluid coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person. These droplets can travel a metre or so and infect anyone within range who breathes them in.
Flu can also spread if someone with the virus transfers it on their fingers. For example, if you have flu and you touch your nose or eyes and then touch someone else, you may pass the virus on to them.
Similarly if you have flu and touch
common hard surfaces such as door handles with unwashed hands then other people who touch the surface after you can pick up the infection.
Read more about the causes of flu.
You can stop yourself catching flu in the first place or spreading it to others by being careful with your hygiene.
Always wash your hands regularly with soap and water and:
- regularly clean surfaces such as your keyboard, telephone and door handles to get rid of germs
- use tissues to cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze
- put used tissues in a bin as soon as possible
You can also help stop the spread of flu if you avoid all unnecessary contact with other people while you're infectious. You should stay off work until you are no longer infectious and you are feeling better.
Read more about how to stop the spread of flu.
The flu vaccine
A flu vaccine is available free on the NHS for:
- pregnant women
- children aged two, three and four and children in school year 7
- children aged 6 months – 17 years who have a health condition that increases their risk of being very ill with flu
- adults aged 65 or older
- adults with a health condition that increases their risk of developing complications from flu
- people living in a residential or nursing home
- members of voluntary organisations providing planned emergency first aid
- Community First Responders (active members of a Welsh Ambulance Service Trust scheme who provide first aid directly to the public)
- Health and social care workers who have direct patient/client contact (vaccine available through occupational health service)
Despite popular belief, the flu vaccine cannot give you flu as it doesn't contain the active virus needed to do this.
The flu vaccine is available from October each year. If you think you need it, talk to your GP or practice nurse.
For more information on who should have the flu jab and how to get it see Seasonal flu jab.
Flu vaccine for children
This autumn (2014), the nasal spray flu vaccine will be offered to all children aged two, three and four years and children in school year 7 as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme.
Children who were aged 2, 3 and 4 years of age on the 31st of August 2014 will be vaccinated through primary care (GP practices) using a nasal spray, and children in school year 7 through the school nursing service.
Children aged six months to less than 2 years with a health condition that increases their risk of being very ill from flu will be given their flu vaccine by injection.
The flu vaccine programme will be extended over a number of years to eventually include all children aged two to 16 inclusive.
Read more about children and teens having the seasonal flu vaccine.
Which type of vaccine?
Click here for information on which flu vaccine is suitable for you and your child.
If you think you have flu you can use our Cold and Flu symtom checker to find out what to do.